Whether playing a ghostbuster, a singing bear or a heartbroken middle-aged man, bereft and adrift in an uncaring world, there is a Bill Murray for every season. The actor happens, of course, to be one of the great screen comedians of the past 50 years. But it’s the pathos stirred in with the hilarity that has made him such an enduring presence. As he turns 70 today, here is the definitive ranking of his best film performances (Garfield fans should brace for the possibility that it hasn’t made the cut).
20. St Vincent (2014)
Theodore Melfi’s indie comedy-drama is too sentimental by half. However, Murray is in his element as a beguiling grump who strikes up a reluctant friendship with new neighbours Melissa McCarthy and her son.
19. Zombieland (2009)
It’s just a cameo – but, playing a wild caricature of himself, Murray sprinkles bonus anarchy into this fun but insubstantial undead caper (it’s also a guest spot you genuinely don’t see coming). Even his death is hilarious as he is shot after being mistaken for a zombie (he dressed up as one for a practical joke). Two hours of Bill Murray winking his way through a gonzo horror flick would be too much. In Zombieland he is careful not to wear out his welcome.
18. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
A lesser Wes Anderson outing, with the quirkiness dialled up all the way. Moonrise Kingdom is the tale of 12-year-olds Suzy and Sam, who flee summer camp. As Suzy’s morose dad, Murray is sublime – and he has the perfect foil to Frances McDormand as his wife (who is besotted with their neighbour, portrayed by Bruce Willis).
17. Ghostbusters II (1989)
A wonderful movie that suffered for not being quite as wonderful as its predecessor. It’s a showcase, in particular, for Murray’s powers of sarcasm. As the story begins, former Ghostbuster Peter Venkman has been reduced to hosting a late-night cable show about the supernatural. He struggles to keep his incredulity in check – the perfect excuse for Murray to unleash his full comic death ray.
16. Scrooged (1988)
This very Eighties take on A Christmas Carol sees Murray going for broke as a heartless Manhattan TV executive. A cousin twice-removed from Tom Cruise’s Cocktail and Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, Scrooged functions both as a Dickensian romp and as an interrogation of rocket-fuelled Reaganite capitalism. Of course, the real treat is Murray’s very good Ebenezer (his name regrettably been changed to Frank Cross).
15. Caddyshack (1980)
It is a matter of record that most of the cast were off their faces on stimulants making this raunchy golfing romp. Be that as it may, Murray radiates shoulder-shrugging charm as gopher-obsessed groundskeeper Carl Spackler. Filming was nearing completion when it was realised that Murray and co-star Chevy Chase had not shared a scene together. So they got together one night and improvised a bit, in which Chase’s golfing obsessive Ty Webb drives a ball into Spackler’s living quarters and they bond over a drink. Knocked out on the hoof it may have been, but comedy magic flowed as these two alchemists riffed off one another.
14. The Jungle Book (2016)
Disney’s live-action remakes have been divisive (or maybe not all that divisive: everyone seems to dislike the new Mulan). However, the project was off to a winning start with Murray in his element voicing Baloo the bear and going so far as to give us a very Murray take on “The Bare Necessities”.
13. Stripes (1981)
Featuring a fresh from Saturday Night Live Murray, this military comedy came at the height of post-Vietnam disillusionment with America's military policy. Murray is inspired as a New York cab driver who joins the army on a whim. Stripes wins bonus commendations for introducing Murray to future Ghostbusters collaborators Ivan Reitman and Harold Ramis.
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12. What About Bob? (1991)
The gags are formulaic but Murray and Richard Dreyfuss play magnificently off one another as a neurotic New Yorker and the egotistical psychiatrist.
11. Mad Dog and Glory (1993)
Scripted by crime doyen Richard Price, Mad Dog and Glory was an opportunity for Murray to test himself against a top-rank cast. This included Uma Thurman, David Caruso – and Robert De Niro. That said, the plot hasn’t aged well. Murray is a mob boss who gifts to De Niro’s shy crime scene photographer the “personal use” of Thurman’s young bartender for a week. And then De Niro and Thurman’s characters fall in love. Eeeew… but Murray is sparkling.
10. Charlie’s Angels (2000)
Even 20 years ago, the inherit sexism of the girl power crime solvers premise was obvious. But this is still a spirited and cheesy riff on the Seventies original – and Bill Murray is entirely in on the joke as the titular Charlie’s representative on earth, John Bosley.
9. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
A glorified cameo, really, but Murray makes the most of a magnificent moustache as M Ivan, a desk clerk with a dark side in another Anderson collaboration.
8. Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)
Murray voices Clive Badger opposite George Clooney’s Mr Fox. Surprise, surprise – it turns out he was born to portray a sharp-tongued woodland mammal for Wes Anderson.
7. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
The great man is in his element as a madcap riff on underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau. Lovingly awful special effects, Seu Jorge’s Portuguese David Bowie covers and Anderson generally going full polyphonic twee are among Life Aquatic’s highlights. But all are eclipsed by Murray as a selfish sea dog you can’t help find charming.
6. Broken Flowers (2005)
The sadness that had always lingered at the edge of Murray’s smile is blown up to super-size by Jim Jarmusch in this character study about an ageing lothario reckoning with his past, mistakes made and the roads not travelled. It had the potential to be deeply bleak. But Murray’s wry, mournful turn is shot through with wit and optimism.
5. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
One of the best and funniest movies ever made about family. There’s so much to lose yourself in here: Gwyneth Paltrow as a dead-behind-the-eyes hipster, the Elliott Smith scene, Ben Stiller’s red tracksuit. Amid all that, it is easy to overlook Murray’s Raleigh St Clair, soft-voiced husband of Paltrow's wounded daddy’s girl Margot. In a film in which everyone else is conspicuously overdoing it, Murray’s minimalism serves as an essential counterpoint.
4. Groundhog Day (1993)
A mean-spirited comedy about an oversized hamster – and also an unsurpassable rumination on life, self-improvement and destiny. Harold Ramis’s script is so sharp it would probably have worked regardless of who portrayed the weatherman fated to live the same day over and over until he pulls up his socks as a human being. But casting Murray was the hilarious cherry on top. Alas, the existential angst extended to the shoot with director Ramis and his star having a terrible falling out and not speaking for many years.
3. Rushmore (1998)
Murray’s first collaboration with Wes Anderson and a movie that reveals something new with every rewatch. A middle-aged sad sack who falls in love with a teacher (Olivia Williams) ought not be a sympathetic character. Especially when his rival for her affections is one of her students. But the sparks thrown up by Murray and his romantic nemesis (Jason Schwartzman) are effervescent. The film was a renaissance for Murray – showing the world he could do more than just be hilariously grumpy.
2. Ghostbusters (1984)
One of the greatest ever comedies and a fantastic supernatural blockbuster to boot. Dan Ackroyd, who wrote the script with Harold Ramis, was genuinely obsessed with the spirit world, while co-stars Ramis, Ernie Hudson and Sigourney Weaver played it down the middle. The joker in the ectoplasm is Murray, who navigates the action just about keeping a straight face. It is an irresistible counterpoint to all the End of the World hokum – the essential final ingredient in a near-perfect film.
1. Lost in Translation (2003)
One of the finest movies of the 21st century and a beguiling odyssey into the cobwebbed recesses of the human heart. Murray is a burned-out older man who learns to look at life with fresh eyes after developing a friendship with the semi-abandoned wife of a rock photographer, portrayed by Scarlett Johansson. Sofia Coppola layers the film in ambiguity – so that you never quite get a handle on the true nature of the central relationship. But the crackle between Murray and Johansson is powerful and poignant. You’ll never think about love, life, karaoke or the music of French neo-proggers Phoenix the same way again.
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